Blog Health Equity

Defining public health research

by Jordan Leith, BS student at University of Tennessee-Knoxville and participant in the 2019 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public & Global Health Track

For much of my undergraduate career, “Public Health” has been an enigmatic term. Many disciplines, ranging from mathematics to anthropology, are readily discerned due to their well-defined subject matter. However, Public Health is not as easily demarcated. For this reason, I was drawn to the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Track at Washington University in St. Louis. I hoped to catch a glimpse of this enigma first-hand and determine how it might influence my future career as an aspiring physician-researcher.

Map of redlining in St. Louis.
A redlining map of St. Louis from Mapping Inequality.

Admittedly, I was a little puzzled when the first of our didactic seminars examined the role of housing discrimination in the geopolitics of modern Saint Louis. This feeling was exacerbated by the following seminar, which used a public health framework to analyze and respond to gun violence. On the surface, these seemed like disparate topics, and I considered them to be within the domain of political science and public policy. However, comprehensive analysis showed the subtle, inextricable links they possess with the health of underserved populations in Saint Louis.

Through discussing the role of environment and social disadvantage in relation to health outcomes, my reductionist view of health broadened. Suddenly, considering health purely through the lens of medicine not only seemed cross-sectional, but also irresponsible. Learning about the legal processes that established unjust living conditions and the historical context of these communities convinced me that the role of a physician-researcher is not to conduct medical research merely for the sake of knowledge. Instead, our role is to translate evidence-based research into advocacy and policy change ensuring that everyone has an equitable chance at wellness.  Ultimately, these insightful seminars served to expand my conception of public health and fundamentally changed what I view to be the role of a physician-researcher.

I would like to say that I have determined a clear and concise definition constituting what is and what isn’t Public Health, but I haven’t. However, I think this belies the beauty of Public Health as a discipline. It transcends the typical borders of academic fields and focuses on improving the physical and mental aspects of the human condition through longitudinal, cross-disciplinary research.

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